A Resident Outraged
One afternoon six years ago, Debra Hall learned the water in her Hopewell Junction home was toxic. The quest she has embarked on since that day has transformed her and her entire neighborhood
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This map, taken from a New York State Department of Health report, depicts the extent of the groundwater contamination in the area surrounding the Hopewell Precision plant. Hall‘s house is located on Creamery Road, about 600 feet west of Route 82
Hall, along with her neighbors, already knew that the TCE had originated from what the EPA referred to as the “former Hopewell Precision site,” a property located about a mile northeast of Hall’s house on a small Route 82 outlet named Ryan Drive. What was less clear was who was responsible for the pollution. Since 1980, metal-equipment manufacturer Hopewell Precision had operated out of a facility at 19 Ryan Drive; from 1977 to 1980, it was located next door at 15 Ryan Drive. During Hopewell Precision’s four years at 15 Ryan Drive, the state Department of Environmental Conservation received an anonymous tip that the manufacturer was dumping TCE onto the property grounds. (As long as it is properly disposed of, the chemical was — and still is — legal to use as a degreaser or cleaning solvent. Dumping TCE outside, however, is illegal.) A state Department of Environmental Conservation investigation failed to uncover evidence that any such pollution occurred, and the agency dropped the investigation in 1994. Whatever amount of TCE was underground at that point remained there, undetected, until the EPA discovered it on a routine assessment in 2003.
Whatever its source, there was little question as to how the TCE traveled from the lot into the individual homes: It seeped into the earth, then into the groundwater, and then into the private wells that Hall and her neighbors used for drinking water. Ingested over a long period of time, TCE could wreak all kinds of havoc on the human body. The chemical is linked to increased incidences of cancer (particularly non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and cancers of the liver and kidney), immune system deficiencies, and birth defects in the fetuses of pregnant women. The chemical also has been known to cause headaches, skin rashes, and cognitive problems such as short-term memory loss.
The worst symptoms Hall had experienced were dizziness and psoriasis; the TCE didn’t seem to make her back condition any worse. Other residents in the neighborhood were not as fortunate. There was the 19-year-old with testicular cancer, the 40-year-old with kidney cancer, the infant born blind with a nonfunctioning kidney. Hall’s next-door neighbors, the Kovers, have a daughter who suffered blackout episodes as an infant, and a son with severe developmental disabilities. There is no way to definitively prove the illnesses are caused by TCE, but given the preponderance of cases, Hall says that “there is no doubt in [her] mind that these problems are caused from the water.”
In terms of cleanup, toxic sites as badly polluted as Hall’s neighborhood usually take one of two paths: They are designated as federal Superfund sites, a status reserved only for what the EPA considers to be the nation’s most polluted sites (such as the Shenandoah Road site); or they are placed in the less-selective state Superfund program. Once on either list, a site undergoes a painstaking review process and eventually is cleaned to the point that the EPA or DEC deems it safe.
In either case, the process often lasts decades, and is frequently marred by legal and financial quarrels. Until 1995, the federal Superfund was financed through a combination of taxes on polluter corporations and everyday citizens. That year, however, Congress allowed the polluter-tax provision to lapse, and since then the program has been forced to rely exclusively on the common person. Despite inflation, its funding has never exceeded what it was in the mid-1990s, a fact that has increasingly impacted the agency’s ability to clean up sites. (If the EPA can directly tie a business to the pollution, it can force the company to pay for the cleanup. At the moment, however, it looked like that would not be an option in the case of Hopewell Precision.) The state Superfund was in even worse shape: It was bankrupt. Governor George Pataki and the state legislature agreed that the program needed to be revived, but disputes over funding levels and cleanup standards left it in bureaucratic purgatory.
Neither option seemed promising, but each was better than no Superfund, in which case the neighborhood would receive only the most minimal of protections. Of the two Superfunds, it was the federal version that received greater attention and money. That was the designation Hall knew the neighborhood needed.
As the summer of 2003 faltered along, it became clear that the number of TCE-infected homes was somewhere in the dozens. Not only that, but the TCE in the groundwater was spreading: More homes would likely be contaminated. Some of the residents’ water had also tested positive for 1,1,1-trichloroethane, or 1,1,1-TCA, a compound suspected of causing similar health problems to TCE. What had started as an unsettling unknown was now a fully grasped neighborhood nightmare. “It was to the point where I couldn’t even sleep at night, thinking about this stuff,” Hall says. “I wanted people to be made aware about what was going on. I wanted a wrong to be righted.”
Hall couldn’t wait around any longer. She needed to do something. Six homes in Hopewell Junction had tested positive for TCE, but at a level slightly below the EPA standard of five parts per billion. Foster’s water, for example, contained 4.8 parts per billion TCE. “If you’re a 4.8, you should be concerned,” Hall says. “But no, the EPA is telling them, ‘Oh, you don’t have to worry, it’s within the standards.’ To me, that’s a lie, and that makes me mad.” She wrote a letter to her state senator, Stephen Saland, about her neighbors’ plight. “I certainly understand your concern in this matter,” Saland wrote back. “Please be sure that I will monitor these ongoing developments closely. Given the federal EPA is lead agency on these matters, you may also wish to contact your federal representatives.” Unsatisfied with Saland’s response, Hall next wrote to Sue Kelly, her Congressional representative in Washington. Kelly sent a note to the EPA, asking the agency to supply the six homes with clean water. Not now, the EPA said.
Hall still agonized over the condition of her own water. A month after the EPA had told her that her home was contaminated, Hall was still showering in water poisoned with TCE. Repeated calls to the EPA about the installation of filters resulted only in pleas for patience. The agency told Hall it would install the filters once every home in the area had been tested. It looked as though she had hit another dead end.
But in late June, Hall wrote a letter to the editor at the Poughkeepsie Journal about the situation, and the newspaper printed it. “I read that taking a shower for 10 minutes in water with TCE is just as bad as drinking it,” Hall wrote. “My family and I are subjected to a chemical that can cause cancer, kidney and liver disease, and skin problems while the EPA takes their time giving us the filter we so desperately need.”
The newspaper’s environmental reporter at the time, Dan Shapley, decided to pursue the story. He called Jim Haklar, the EPA’s community involvement coordinator for the site. The agency’s stance on the filters had suddenly changed. “A decision was made that we really couldn’t delay the installation any further,” Haklar told him. Within weeks, Hall and the rest of the affected residents had filters installed in their homes.
By mid-summer, several people were establishing themselves as neighborhood leaders. Hall headed the efforts to reach out to politicians. Betty Hicks, who lived off of Creamery Road on Lenart Place, ran meetings and wrote a neighborhood newsletter. Bill Borell, a Metro-North engineer who owned a six-acre property on Route 82, studied the technical issues. “We educated ourselves as much as we could, so when we spoke to the EPA, they would listen,” Borell says. The neighborhood began coalescing around the common threat they faced. A meeting with EPA officials in July brought 200 community members to the local elementary school, Hall estimates. “It tended, on many levels, to bring the neighborhood together,” Borell says. “Debra turned out to be one of my very, very close friends.”
In September, a group of the residents scored a private meeting with Kelly. Hall had prepared a speech to read to Kelly, but she was skeptical of the congresswoman’s commitment — and it showed. Her body language was “very guarded,” says Foster, who attended the meeting. Hall did not allow her feelings to upset the delivery of her speech, however. “Debra read the most eloquent statement about how she felt, how she had met people affected by the water,” Foster says. “It totally drew Kelly in.” From that point forward, the neighborhood had an ally in the Republican. “I realized no one was paying any attention to this woman,” Kelly says. “She had the facts, she knew what she was talking about, and they weren’t giving her the credibility she deserved. And that made me pretty angry.”
Sitting at home all day while David was at work, Hall wrote letter after letter to the EPA, the DEC, environmental advocacy organizations, and representatives of every level of government, asking them to do whatever they could to help the neighborhood get named to the Superfund list. In November, Erin Crotty, the commissioner of the DEC, wrote a letter to the regional EPA administrator calling for the site to be added to the list. In February, Senator Charles Schumer did the same. He was followed shortly thereafter by Kelly. Following the turmoil over the filters, Hall’s relationship with the EPA improved vastly. “Ever since then, the EPA’s been really great,” she says.
Back in January, however, an EPA official had told Hall that the agency needed to test her home for something called vapor intrusion. It so happened that the health threat posed by contaminated water had been well documented for decades, but the ability of those same toxic chemicals to invade indoor air, from the groundwater beneath a house, had been unknown — until now. In February, she received the results. The air in her home contained TCE levels up to nine times higher than what the DEC considered safe. “I was bawling like a baby. It felt like somebody had shot me,” Hall says. “The air! The air! I could escape from the water, but I couldn’t escape from the air.”
A month later, in March, Hall received more bad news: The Hopewell Junction site had been left off the federal Superfund list. The EPA regional administrator had not received the necessary paperwork in time for the site to be considered for inclusion, and it would be months before the neighborhood would even be eligible for review. In the meantime, its residents faced a new threat to their health: the air they breathed. And this time, there was no stopgap measure like the bottled water to save them. Until the EPA installed air filters, the residents would continue to breathe in chemicals that might give them cancer. There was nothing they could do about it.